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A fellow PCs in a game I'm in wants to attack the mental stress track of a mortal using spirit-based evocation, but the GM doesn't know whether or not that would constitute a violation of the Laws of Magic.

The GM is leaning towards "yes," but the person is fairly insistent.

Is attacking the mental stress track of a mortal possible without breaking the Laws of Magic?

If so, could you provide an example spell?

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  • \$\begingroup\$ @ZRTAssassin, has the character in question completely ruled out using Intimidation (perhaps boosting their own capabilities in that regard?) \$\endgroup\$ – Brian Ballsun-Stanton Nov 5 '14 at 23:58
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    \$\begingroup\$ You could try casting Performance Review: i.imgur.com/ZEGYAkc.png \$\endgroup\$ – MikeyB Nov 6 '14 at 1:47
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Yes, it's possible to inflict Mental Stress with magic without breaking the Laws of Magic. You just can't affect someone's mind directly; whenever you're thinking of an effect that could cause Mental stress, the brain is strictly off-limits.

There are plenty of ways to cause Mental Stress with less psychic effects, though. The entire field of illusion (which Spirit magic does just fine) will work; a few well-timed telekinetic effects can help. Like most illusions, it will work best if your target is unfamiliar with magic. In the Dresden Files novels, Molly uses illusions as her main weapon, but it isn't violating any of the Laws of Magic. Here are a few examples:

  1. Create a horrific-but-plausible illusion: slavering monsters, the walls falling down, or all of the exits are on fire and the room is getting hot.
  2. Create an implausible horrific illusion that still frightens or shocks the target: a simple, still image of something awful happening to a loved one, or a magical Powerpoint detailing the terrible things that will happen as you narrate.
  3. Create a perfectly ordinary illusion of something personal going wrong: a girlfriend breaking up with the target, an illusory phone call from the hospital regarding a loved one, etc.
  4. Irritate the target in a hundred tiny ways, incessantly over several days: whispered voices, machinery suddenly failing when the target uses it, street lights always going out when the target is near, etc. Drive your target mad by making them think they've already gone mad.
  5. Push the target around with small, invisible kinetic forces. Think of the movie Ghost; the (dead) protagonist causes plenty of terror to his enemies by being a poltergeist with an agenda.

Just because the target is taking Mental Stress doesn't mean that you've actually invaded their mind; they just need to think that something terrible has happened. Keep in mind, though, that your actions still have to make narrative sense: simply applying a Weapon:3 of "terrific illusions" every combat round might only work the first one or two times it hits an opponent; after that, they may get accustomed enough to it that it doesn't have the same impact. Building up an illusion over multiple rounds with Maneuvers, and then hitting the target just once for Mental Stress, may make more narrative sense.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Could you provide an example spell that used illusions but didn't violate the Laws? \$\endgroup\$ – ZRTAssassin Nov 6 '14 at 4:02
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    \$\begingroup\$ @ZRTAssassin Illusions, by their very nature, don't violate the laws. Creating a lightshow (even a horrific one involving slavering monsters and/or torture) is not the same as invading someone's mind. It depends on the implementation, of course; if you enter someone's mind so that they see things, then it violates the laws. But if all of the action is outside the target's mind, then by definition, no laws were violated. (If you frighten someone to death, that still violates the first, of course.) \$\endgroup\$ – PotatoEngineer Nov 6 '14 at 5:13
  • \$\begingroup\$ I appreciate that, now that my GM has seen these arguments he's ruled that illusions can only be used as maneuvers, because attacking the mental stress track of mortals seems out of balance for the game. \$\endgroup\$ – ZRTAssassin Nov 6 '14 at 7:19
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Directly tampering with the human mind, either by reading it or modifying it, is a direct violation of the Third and Fourth Laws, respectively, no matter how you do it or what your motives are. Both of them are a sure way to have the Council Wardens on your trail in no time. Specifically, it is forbidden to directly use magic on human beings for those purposes.

However, instead of asking how to attack a human's mental stress track without violating the Laws, it would be better to ask how a PC can achieve some end using magic (you mentioned spirit magic and evocation, right?) without violating the Laws. Stress tracks are only a construct of the system, and the focus should be in the narrative.

Depending on what the PC wants to do with his target, there are legal and not-legal ways to do it. Let's see some examples:

  • Know his secrets: Outright hacking anyone's mind is a task for spirit magic. It is also a violation of the Third Law. But a skilled magician could still learn a great deal about an individual's secrets by using veils and illusions to break into their home unseen and read their mail or personal documents, or to listen in on private conversations with their wife/husband/friend/lawyer/doctor. Some magicians could try to enlist the help of a friendly ghost for that, too.

  • Make them do what you want: If peeping into another human brain is a big stain of mud on your reputation, then tampering with that same brain's inner workings is like bathing one's reputation in tar. That's another use of spirit magic, and a Fourth Law violation to boot. However, you may still coerce another person, using magic to help you achieve that coercion by mundane means. Blackmail, seduction and outright intimidation work wonders to that end and are completely legal from the perspective of the Laws of Magic. A spirit magician could use the methods described above to get ahold of blackmail material, or he could combine standard stalking, creative use of telekinesis and maybe the services of a collaborating ghost to maintain a subject in a state of fear to make them pliable, as a example.

Just a note. Even if a magician manages to tiptoe around the Laws and avoid a direct violation in this way, repeated use of magic for devious purposes may still attract unwanted attention from Wardens dropping in on your neighbourhood for a visit, just to be sure. Also, while they may not recognize or understand magic, police and other agents of the mundane law may still want a word with you if you are caught doing certain things...

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Attacking a mental stress track is basically just causing mental confusion and exhaustion for your target. Non-magical people do this to each other all the time by verbally abusing each other, feeding false information, engaging in demagogy, using their social positioning to create pressure on the other, and even outright bullying, mobbing, seduction and intimidation. The goal is to get the other person to break down.

There's no reason you cannot do the same while giving your attempts an unfair advantage by using your magic. Make yourself more intimidating or attractive, fabricate false evidence to make them believe in your lies, even directly use scary magical forces like fire and telekinesis on them to instill fear in them etc.

Just don't mess directly with their brain.

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No

That is a direct violation of the Third Law and the Fourth Law of Magic. Which are Never Invade the Thoughts of Another and Never Enthrall Another respectively.

To attack the mental stress track would be attacking the mind of a mortal, whether inciting an emotion or giving them a headache, is a direct attack at the psyche of another person.

Also, on page 240 of YS under The Fourth Law it specifically says:

Here, enthralling is any effort made to change the natural inclinations, choices, and behaviors of another person.

Which attacking their mind would do.

I suppose a clever PC might be able to word it in such a way that your GM would be inclined to let it slide.

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In the dresden game I run with some friends we have a player who designed an enchanted item to attack the mental stress track. The main use is a spirit evocation described as psychic "hammer" thrown against he enemies. It does little more than tire people out and at worst might knock out someone, if in a quick and dirty fashion. He brought up that sleep spells were not a violation of the laws and that he made no attempts to actually enter the mind or change behavior. The tool was mostly designed to burn up enemy stress tracks when fighting magic users.

He made a compelling argument and this is how we handled it. It was not a violation of the laws, though it was as far Grey as you could go without breaking them, and he would not be forced to take lawbreakers. However, after using the earrings for a game or two we had wardens settle into the town to investigate dark magic. It might not have been a direct or true violation. But it's all the same to the wardens and by the end of that story arc the player got rid of his little psychic hammer.

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